Speaker of the House Paul Ryan isn’t supporting Donald Trump. Not yet, at least. Here’s what he told CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked whether he supported Trump:
RYAN: Well, to be perfectly candid with you, Jake, I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now. And I hope to, though, and I want to. But I think what is required is that we unify the party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.
I don’t want to underplay what he accomplished. He needs to be congratulated for an enormous accomplishment. For winning now a plurality of delegates, and he’s on his way to winning a majority of delegates, but he also inherited something very special. That’s very special to a lot of us. This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp. And we don’t always nominate a Lincoln and a Reagan every four years, but we hope that our nominee aspires to be Lincoln and Reagan-esque, but that person advances the principles of our party and appeals to a wide, vast majority of Americans. And so I think what is necessary to make this work, for this to unify, is to actually take up principles and advance them. And that’s what we want to see.
Saying we’re unified doesn’t in and of itself, unify us, but actually taking the principles that we all believe in, showing that there’s a dedication to those, and running a principles campaign that Republicans can be proud about, and that can actually appeal to a majority of Americans, that to me is what it takes to unify this party.
Here are a few reasons Ryan’s move was so smart.
(1) Tamps Down Pressure and Chaos
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry all agreed to support Trump once he secured the nomination. Of course, that’s what happens every four years when the nominee is chosen. None of these folks sound tremendously enthusiastic about Trump, frequently only referring to him as “the nominee.”
What’s weird about this year is that a ton of Republicans — from elected officials to conservative activists to average Joes — are saying they have no interest in endorsing a man whose policies are so far afield from the Republican Party. Sen. Ben Sasse wrote a letter to the majority of Americans not on the Trump express, appealing for better options.
Various congressmen have declined to support Trump, including Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan and Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. A host of conservative writers and broadcasters, including Jonah Goldberg, Mona Charen, Erick Erickson, Michael Graham, and Stephen Hayes, have said they can’t support the man. And dozens and dozens more. Some writers burned their voter registration cards identifying them as Republicans. Or how about this headline that just popped up: “‘Dismayed’ Romney says he doesn’t intend to back Trump, worried about ‘demagoguery and populism.’”
Primaries are always bruising affairs, and the calls to unity shouldn’t be premature. This year asking the party to get behind the nominee is like asking a carjack victim to shake hands with the thief immediately after he stole your car.
No matter how much GOP officials claim the party is in fine shape and there are no problems, the evidence suggests that a party hostile to principled conservatives could pose tremendous long-term risk.
Perhaps Sen. Ben Sasse best summed up the sentiment the other night when he responded to an official GOP tweet that oozed Pollyannishness:
What Paul is doing is two-fold. He’s tamping down the completely typical pressure to get behind the nominee, and he’s providing cover for others who, for matters of principle or politics, don’t want to go down on SS Trump Titanic.
That includes members such as Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, who said she was “just not ready” to support Trump before Ryan made his similar announcement.
(2) Prepares For a Trump Victory
Tom Nichols wrote recently about why he would support Hillary Clinton over Trump should the race come down to those two candidates. He said it was a “Hamilton Rule” issue:
Better to lose to a true enemy whose policies you can fight and repudiate, rather than to a false friend whose schemes will drag you down with him. This is a painful choice, but it also embraces realism while protecting the possibility of recovery in the future. The need to live to fight another day is why conservatives should adopt a Hamilton Rule if, God forbid, the choice comes down to Hillary and Trump.
For conservatives, both a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency pose problems. For Speaker Ryan, that goes tenfold. He’s what I call “Rove bitten, twice shy,” having been burned in the Bush administration by a political operation that all but forced him and other Republicans on the Hill into supporting budget-busting entitlement expansions such as Medicare Part D.
Boldly demonstrating that Trump and Ryan are not on the same team at this point is useful whether or not Trump decides to speak and act in a more conservative manner. Even if he doesn’t change his progressive, populist approach, Ryan won’t have to deal with the pressure that comes from being on the same team as someone who wants to expand the size and scope of government.
(3) He Read Trump’s Book
Trump won the nomination. He won it without — it would seem — needing to go through a brokered convention. And he won it without needing the most passionate parts of the base of the Republican Party. Entrenched lobbyists and political consultants, who by their nature are less ideological, saw the writing on the wall and joined up with Trump a while back. But conservatives fought him and lost.
It would seem Ryan doesn’t have any cards to play. Examiner political journalist Byron York certainly thinks that way:
Don’t think Ryan is working from position of strength here. Guy he opposed won. Now Ryan making demands.
Byron York (@ByronYork) May 5, 2016
Other Trump enthusiasts seemed similarly confused by Ryan’s move:
Except Ryan has nothing to lose. As noted above, though, Ryan’s got a problem whether Trump wins or loses. If he wins, Ryan will be tasked with fighting the implementation of progressive Trump policies — tax hikes, minimum wage hikes, protectionism, executive overreach, expansion of health care, to name a few ideas mentioned yesterday on the stump — as well as helping implement any good reforms. And if Trump loses in a blowout, Ryan needs to help preserve the Republican Party as a conservative institution.
And Trump’s got a problem. He needs Republicans not to just unify behind him, but also to work hard for him. And they’re not ready to do that. He also needs to reach out to a broader part of the electorate. Trump needs the passionate base of the Republican Party roughly a million times more than the base needs Trump. Putting that passionate base on ice until after the convention might cause more problems than it solves.
Besides, Ryan is not saying he won’t support Trump. He’s saying he needs him to act merely as a Republican while leading the Republican Party. He’s saying he’d have to understand and advance Republican Party principles. That’s such a reasonable demand that only the most extreme Trump supporter would have a problem with it. It may be too high a bar for Trump to reach, but it’s a reasonable demand.
Ryan’s offering Trump a deal. And he is in the perfect bargaining position because he wins whether Trump takes the deal or doesn’t. Ryan is open to meetings, but Trump is the one who is going to have to make a change. (His initial response was what you’d expect.) To that end, the move reminded me more of this:
Ryan is known as a policy guy, but he didn’t get to be Speaker by not knowing how to work a deal. And just like with the deal to become Speaker, the key for Ryan is that he doesn’t much care which outcome his bargaining partner chooses. He’s comfortable with either scenario.
(4) Keeps GOP from Imploding
One of the stupider Trump surrogates’ statements yesterday was offered by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee:
Um. Mike. They’re only happy to oblige. That’s the problem. In an era of decreased affiliations, Republican voters who’ve been railroaded by a mere plurality of voters in open-access states aren’t exactly keen on sticking around.
Ryan reminded these folks — some of whom have already burned their registration cards in protest — that the Republican Party is far more than its dysfunctional presidential primary. He said:
And I think we sometimes forget just how successful we’ve been. We had the biggest House majority since 1928. We have 54 Republican Senate Seats. We have state legislative majorities and governorships that we haven’t seen in years, in decades. And so we have done extremely well. Our party is having — enjoying success, because we have unified around common conservative principles, and then we have one hill to climb, one more mountaintop — that’s the presidency. So please know that we think the stakes are extremely high. They’re the highest they’ve been. The Supreme Court, Congress, the future of America is on the line.
Ryan also provided an example to show other conservatives how you can be a loyal Republican without attempting to justify a vote for Trump.
On the point of party loyalty, Trump told his supporters last night to not bother showing up for the West Virginia primary, and to save their exertions for his general election battle. This is quite different than how a Republican standard bearer would treat a primary, which is not just about nominating someone to be president but also governor, senator, congressman, and a whole host of other state-wide and local races.
(5) Crushes a Democratic Party Talking Point
Much of the pressure to unify around Trump isn’t coming from the Republican Party so much as elites on the left. They know that Democrats hope to hang Trump around the neck of every down ticket Republican, as we’re already seeing here.
Note this headline:
Hillary Clinton and other Democrats want nothing more than to say Trump is a typical Republican or typical conservative. The damage to conservative principles of Trump leading the party might be serious, but Ryan is helping mitigate that effect.
(6) Shows Fortitude
As one political reporter noted:
Again, Ryan is fighting for the soul of the conservative movement, so he wins regardless of how Trump responds. But it also shows that Ryan isn’t exactly cowed by Trump and his threats. It’s not that what Ryan did took a tremendous amount of courage, but courage is in short supply among Republican leaders these days, so even a bit of testicular fortitude is a dramatic contrast to what’s offered elsewhere.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the order in which some members of Congress expressed concern about endorsing Trump.